mental health-related absence
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Ian Caminsky, Chief Executive Officer at FirstCare, discusses how data can be used to tackle the rising epidemic of mental health-related absence in the workplace

With significant restrictions having been placed on our lives, we have seen organisations move quickly to support mental wellbeing. Yet, mental health-related absence for workers was already a problem, having risen 21% in the last five years. Once the pandemic is over, businesses must turn to the data on mental health-related absence and tackle this hidden crisis affecting our workforce.

Coronavirus has forced organisations to focus on mental health

The speed at which coronavirus arrived and impacted our lives has forced employers to react, with many putting in place measures to support the mental health of workers. We saw a 700% increase in absence due to medical infection, the reason attributed to coronavirus, in the last quarter. The change in circumstances was sudden and created a number of new scenarios likely to increase anxiety. Employers have recognised there will be heightened concerns around fear of isolation, job losses, not to mention the risk of infection. In my role as CEO of FirstCare, the UK’s leading workforce absence management system, I have seen companies innovate to counter these anxieties and put further resources into boosting employee wellbeing.

The crisis has shown that organisations are capable of enacting new policies to support mental health at speed. Businesses that already had in-house support mechanisms, like counselling or therapists have moved these online, with these services adapted via video conferencing. Companies have been proactive in offering online seminars on topics around isolation and protecting mental health whilst in quarantine.

For those still going to work there have also been measures introduced. For instance, at the start of April, the NHS launched a mental health hotline offering support to workers on the frontline. These initiatives show that if an issue is publicised and prioritised, organisations can work quickly to provide the help needed.

Mental health was already a significant problem

The heightened focus on improving emotional support has been very welcome. However, employers must understand that mental health issues were already rising and this is not simply a ‘coronavirus problem’. Since FirstCare started recording absences fifteen years ago, our data has shown that poor mental health – while representing only 4% of distinct absence spells – has accounted for more than 16% of all working days lost to absence. There has been a 21% rise in the last 5 years alone, with mental health issues overtaking musculoskeletal problems as the main reason for working days lost to absence since 2018.

These are not just numbers; this equates to many more employees unable to go to work. To use an example that illustrates the scale of the problem, 6% of distinct absence spells in the NHS are due to mental health issues. This equates to millions of days lost to absence and is a problem that will undoubtedly worsen this year as brave frontline workers bear the brunt of the battle against coronavirus. This figure is too high and can be reduced by the provision of additional support and wellness initiatives.

Businesses are not only tackling mental health problems in the workplace for the wellbeing of their workers. Unplanned absences from work also effect business productivity and output. Based on the average UK salary, FirstCare has calculated that mental health-related absence cost the UK businesses £25 billion in 2019.

Using data to inform wellbeing policies

To tackle the ongoing mental health crisis, organisations need to work on long-term solutions now. This starts with properly recording the reasons for absence and using this data to create bespoke wellbeing initiatives. For example, one business that we work with combined insights they found from data related to mental health unplanned leave with feedback from their employees and found that debt issues were a significant contributory factor to their workforce wellbeing and productivity issues. As a direct result, they partnered with a company that could offer optional low-interest loans taken directly from their pay to help ease their financial worries. They found that this scheme not only offered practical help but opened the conversation on mental health between employee and employer.

Our data shows that 60% of workers will leave their job following two mental health-related absences, so having the right policies in place to enable these conversations is vital. I have been encouraged by the proactive measures organisations have taken during this pandemic to tackle mental health issues. With the spotlight now firmly on mental health, businesses should take this opportunity to maintain and increase emotional support for workers. This way, the country can begin to tackle the hidden national crisis of mental health.

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